EDITOR'S NOTE: Sympathy for the devil

Jul 15, 2008 at 11:14 pm

For the past several weeks I have been on the campaign trail here in Louisville, touting my unofficial run for Congress against Democratic incumbent John Yarmuth and his Republican challenger Anne Northup, whose erratic behavior and direct threats to me, a newspaper editor who is not a registered candidate in this year’s election, have thrust me into prominence I did not expect — a position of superb responsibility that nonetheless must be respected. 

I have been offered pro bono commercial production and more vote pledges than what is even reasonable, as well as thinly veiled threats with wording suspiciously close to what has come directly from the Northup campaign, calling me angry, rage-filled, dangerous, and so on. It is safe to assume that she is amassing an infantry to disseminate her deeply flawed position on gas prices, to be used as a weapon against people like me, a scum-feeder journalist who — despite numerous official inquiries — still cannot get on her campaign’s e-mail list. 

It was her position on gas that got me into this thing in the first place, and somewhat perversely, I still don’t regret speaking up. Some time ago, Northup appeared at a Thornton’s gas station in South Louisville to unveil her “energy policy,” which is essentially that, as a member of Congress, she would vote to open American shores and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to full-tilt oil exploration. The Bush administration has said this would lower gas prices some $0.04-per-gallon in about a decade or so, something to look forward to if Northup happens to spend another 10 years in Congress. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines delusion as “a belief or impression that is not in accordance with a generally accepted reality.” It defines megalomania as “1. obsession with the exercise of power. 2. the delusion that one has great power or importance.” And it defines pander as a verb meaning to “gratify or indulge (an immoral or distasteful desire or habit).” 

As a member of the minority party of the House, Northup would have a tall order convincing so many of her colleagues and maybe a Democratic president that drilling is the plan for now. The vile subtext of this in the campaign is that she would somehow lower the price of fuel through the sheer force of her own personality, and that this is the paramount reason to vote for her. 

Much of human literature and history has taught us that this sort of power comes at great personal cost. Hitler had to drop cyanide to escape the ultimate reaches of his power. Mussolini was executed like some disease-ridden hound dog too far past his prime to care. Shakespeare’s King Richard II lost it in a coup and wound up murdered in jail. Power is a corrupting force. Especially the kind of power that could reign in gouging by greed-addled oil companies, compel groundbreaking exploration of new oil reserves and place a regulatory finger on the tense wholesaler-retailer relationships that ultimately determine our gas prices here in Possibility City. 

I suspect Northup has never had this sort of power and could never even aspire to it in a serious way. I fully believe she is a decent woman who’s gotten caught up in the Washington game and promo politics. But her rash behavior of late is bizarre, and privately some are uncomfortable. She is making grave mistakes this time around, which is uncharacteristic: Last week, she told WHAS-TV that a $694,000 grant she secured for the University of Louisville’s College of Education and Human Development was at the center of a federal investigation into possible malfeasance by former Dean Robert Felner, who oversaw $47 million in grants. 

“Dean Felner did a good job at U of L,” Northup said. “He really worked hard in the Department of Education, and obviously it’s very upsetting that this investigation is going on.” 

While she may have been proud to tie herself to the grant money during campaign season, there was no obvious need for her to weigh in on Felner — especially with such flattery. I fully expect Yarmuth’s campaign — if not my own — to use this soon. 

As well, Northup continues a streak of rabid personal politics, turning any question or challenge into a tirade about 1) John Yarmuth and his liberal band of terrorist sympathizers; or 2) me, a newspaper editor who is not a registered candidate in this year’s election. Rather than talk about her brand-new “energy policy” in a recent story on the blog Politicker.com, Northup assailed Yarmuth for a non-existent “personal attack on me” and referred to “the lessons of 2006” — breaking a cardinal sin of campaigning, to never refer to the biggest loss of your political career apropos of nothing. 

A spokesman for Yarmuth’s campaign reminded me last week that the Democrat was down by about as much in July 2006 as Northup is now: 17 points in the latest Survey USA poll. That is to say, don’t write her off. My consultants say the same thing.

Nonetheless, 17 points is a lot of pressure for someone coming off two consecutive losses in races that conventional wisdom said she would win. I don’t blame her for going negative out of the gate. Having been on the trail for a few weeks now, I am beginning to understand negative campaigning in a new way, and I have found that my overwhelming natural urge is not to spend 10 minutes outlining my energy policy but to spend one saying that it is better — stronger, broader, more progressive — than Northup’s. Her one-dimensional approach has turned out to be an easy cultural touchstone for many. 

This is the dirty cycle of negative campaigning: The bar is set low and there is encouragement — both from the electorate and the media, your main vehicle for reaching the electorate — to keep it there. Visceral trumps intellectual. This is not even a remotely new concept. 

But this is more profound than collecting lowest-common-denominator voters, and it plays on our darkest urges as Americans. Candidates who do not actively seek conflict are branded losers, given no media consideration and cast to the ranks of Dennis Kucinich and George McGovern, one-time players with nice ideas who couldn’t fight with the big boys when the bell finally rang. 

Northup is nothing if not a proven brawler, but she seems to have lost her focus group. The key to a successful attack, as I am beginning to understand, is that it be quick and coherent. Northup of ’06 would’ve seized on the federal investigation at U of L as an opportunity only to promote her involvement in bringing federal dollars home. She would not mention gas prices that have nearly tripled while her party has held the White House. 

Two weeks ago in this space, I offered Northup the chance to debate me in public, so that we may hash out our ideas about gas prices before potential voters and constituents and try to achieve some better level of understanding about an issue that is affecting all of us. Her campaign has yet to respond. My offer, of course, remains.